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Top 10 of 2021: COVID concerns continue

NATIONAL GUARDSWOMAN MARIANNE Powell prepared doses of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine at a special clinic for Vermont educators. Health officials brought enough vaccine to inoculate 400 Addison Central School District educators. Independent file photo/Megan James

The biggest story of our lifetimes dragged on through all of 2021 as the story of COVID-19 followed an arc through the year. It started with most of us still hunkered down to avoid the disease and continued through a summer of hope as vaccine distribution spread and then the return to rising case counts through the fall that crescendoed as the year ended.

As the year opened, COVID-19 vaccines had received emergency approval from the feds and were on their way, which was welcome news in the middle of a post-holiday infection surge, including 100 cases at Victory Baptist Church in Waltham.

COVID continued to spread — during a statewide spike in the middle of the month, Vermont logged more positive cases over a five-day period than it had during the first six months of the pandemic combined.

After health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities had begun getting vaccinated, Vermont began administering vaccines to the general public on Jan. 25, starting with residents who were age 75 or older.

Hoping the state had rounded a corner on the pandemic, Gov. Phil Scott eased restrictions on school and recreational sports, including the resumption of outdoor ski team competitions. Practices that had previously been limited to contactless skills and conditioning drills could now be expanded to include limited contact drills and intra-squad scrimmages. In late spring, Addison County Home Health and Hospice traveled around the county administering COVID vaccines to homebound folks and other at-risk populations. Later, they traveled to farms to vaccinate migrant workers.

The pandemic made almost all of the March town meetings either go online, or simply be run only through Australian ballots.

On March 13 Vermont passed a grim milestone: one year since Gov. Scott had declared a state of emergency to slow the spread, or “flatten the curve,” of COVID-19. By the first anniversary of the pandemic, Addison County had recorded 867 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 10 deaths.

By mid-March 2021 26% of county residents had received at least one dose of the vaccine, and the number of those vaccinated rose steadily in the spring. Local businesses and institutions were considering a return to “normal” activities. Middlebury College, which had been operating virtually, was on a path to more in-person activities. Area summer camps — including Keewaydin, Songadeewin and Counterpoint — announced they would reopen to children after a one-year COVID hiatus. Camp directors set up a stringent safety protocols.

Area public libraries also confirmed plans to open their doors to limited in-person browsing. Local high schools agreed to give their seniors in-person commencement ceremonies and proms (with proper safety protocols).

Finally, in mid-June, Gov. Scott lifted all state restrictions previously imposed to fight COVID-19 after Vermont became the first state to vaccinate more than 80% of eligible residents — making it the global leader in COVID-19 vaccinations.

Looking back to those early summer days seem so carefree now. People enjoyed fireworks and maskless barbecues and other gatherings around Independence Day.

The end of July brought the end of our brief respite from COVID anxiety as the delta variant arrived here. Masks returned to faces in Addison County.

Plans were announced in early August for Vermont schools to go back to fulltime, in-person learning, with masking strongly recommended. Once school started it became clear that masks would stay on faces for the foreseeable future. Most schools reported a smattering of COVID cases, and many had difficulty finding enough bus drivers and substitute teachers.

In an effort to fight the rising number of delta cases, Vermont opened COVID-19 Pfizer booster registration to all eligible people on Oct. 1. Middlebury Regional EMS opened a new walk-in COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Middlebury on Nov. 1. Then on Nov. 3 the state started vaccinating the largest remaining group of those at risk — children ages 5-11.

A new law authorized Vermont municipalities to establish their own masking requirements to fight COVID-19, but no county towns took advantage of the opportunity.

A surge in COVID-19 cases at Middlebury College in December — 70 cases — prompted an abrupt shift to remote instruction, and the college encouraged students to leave early for winter break. By month’s end, Middlebury said it would delay the start of its January term.

In Brandon, COVID-19 hit Neshobe Elementary hard. Not only did some students get the disease, but it had 22 staff absences in a single day in mid-December and could not hire enough substitutes to fill those positions. So it instituted remote schooling for everyone for the week leading up to the holiday break.

As schools for younger students prepare to reopen after the holiday break, local educators are hoping a new testing policy will help keep more unvaccinated kids in school when one of their classmates tests positive for the disease.

It was not a big surprise when state officials forecast a Christmas COVID-19 surge in Vermont

People quickly snapped up all of the rapid COVID tests being given away at 10 state Department of Health sites — including one in Middlebury, where the entire lot of around 1,000 tests was given out in an hour. Local pharmacies were also unsure when their depleted stocks of rapid antigen tests would be refilled.

In our first COVID-19 count of the year on Jan. 2, 2021, Addison County reported two new cases of the disease and 296 cases since the start of the pandemic. All of Vermont had seen 7,689 cases by that date. In our last report on Dec. 30, the county reported 29 new cases for a total of 2,548 — representing 2,252 cases in 2021. The state that day reported an amazing 1,352 new COVID-19 cases statewide in one day. With the total pandemic case count at 64,447, Vermont reported 56,758 case in 2021. A total of 471 Vermonters have succumbed to COVID-19.

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